Ireland tolerated abuse of children, says legal expert

Some victims of historic child sex abuse were “forgotten by the law”, according to an analysis of more than 50 high court and supreme court decisions relating to a range of cases.

The claims are contained in new research conducted by Sinéad Ring of Kent Law School, who investigated criminal cases In Ireland between 1999 and 2006.

Referring to the “unprecedented numbers of adults” who from the early 1990s onwards reported to the gardaí they had been sexually abused as children, Dr Ring said Irish society appeared to “tolerate” the abuse of children. She said parents, teachers, gardaí, and others were involved in creating and sustaining a culture of silence around child sexual abuse.

The research focuses on the written decisions issued by the High Court and Supreme Court from 1999 to 2006 in relation to applications by defendants to have their trials prohibited. Defendants charged with historical abuse offences could seek to have their trials prohibited on the grounds that a fair trial was impossible due to the delayed reporting.

The courts employed a legal test to scrutinise the reasons for the delay, including whether the victim was suffering under the ‘dominion’ of the abuser and was unable to report sooner.

Examing 54 such cases, Dr Ring said the law “produced a simple narrative of the passive and traumatised victim paralysed by the domination of the abuser”.

She said this perpetuated “stereotypes about ‘real’ rape victims” and that “victims who did not fit the dominion narrative — such as those who attempted to report at the time, or those who went on to lead happy and healthy lives — were forgotten by law”.

Dr Ring said that, until it was replaced in 2006, dominion was the key issue for courts hearing applications brought by defendants to halt their trial on historical child sexual abuse offences, and while initially a “progressive moment in Irish law’s treatment of victims of historical child sexual abuse”, it later became problematic for a number of reasons, including that it “closed off consideration of the broader societal factors why a child remained silent for so many years”.

In one case involving a Roman Catholic curate, the dominion narrative accepted by the court “translated the failure of the Church authorities to stop the abuse into a minor detail in the Court’s account of the past”.

The Victim of Historical Child Sexual Abuse in the Irish Courts 1999-2006 is published in Social and Legal Studies and is available here.

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